Cozy Hearth plan hearing continued again
The Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) turned up the heat last week on the Cozy Hearth development, a self-funded initiative by an Island businessman to create affordable housing on one-acre lots in Edgartown for some of his employees, family, and friends.
The MVC, which must approve the project as a development of regional impact (DRI), continued a public hearing for the fifth time last Thursday night. But not before peppering Bill Bennett, president of the Cozy Hearth Community Corporation (CHCC), with questions on familiar topics that included wastewater disposal, road and traffic issues, income eligibility requirements, and resale profits.
At the conclusion of last week's public hearing, Christina Brown, chairman of the MVC's land use planning committee (LUPC), continued the hearing to October 20. She stipulated that all parties must submit any further questions about the Cozy Hearth project in writing to the MVC by noon today.
Mr. Bennett was given a deadline of October 13 to provide his answers to the MVC.
In a telephone interview following last Thursday's public hearing, Mr. Bennett spoke wearily but optimistically. Labeling the continued hearing as "part of the process," Mr. Bennett said, "I'm not a developer. If this works out for Cozy Hearth, then I think the system works, because a regular guy with regular people from the Vineyard can get together and bumble their way through the regulatory process and get a house. I'll believe the boards are working, because they've made it so it's navigable for the average Joe."
He added, "If this doesn't work, then this says a regular guy can't go through the regulatory process unless he's a developer."
The Cozy Hearth project began when Mr. Bennett, an electrical contractor and owner of the Bennett Company and Home Electronic Design, was faced with the loss of valuable employees because they were unable to find housing. Also in need of housing for himself and family members, he started looking for a solution.
Along with a core group of seven people and their families, he created the Cozy Hearth Community Corporation. In 2002, the nonprofit organization purchased three lots comprising 10.9 acres on Watcha Path Road in Edgartown, in an area zoned for three-acre lots. CHCC is proposing to subdivide the property into eleven one-acre lots under the terms of Chapter 40B, a state statute which allows projects to bypass local zoning restrictions to develop affordable housing.
Three of the lots will be awarded by a lottery to qualifying Edgartown candidates earning less than 80 percent of the average median income, with perpetual resale deed restrictions. Five others, available to members of the Cozy Hearth group, will be deed-restricted for resale as affordable housing properties for 30 years. The remaining three, also intended for Cozy Hearth members, are not bound by resale restrictions.
The MVC began reviewing the Cozy Hearth project in May. At the project's first public hearing in June, opponents homed in on density and environmental issues. Mr. Bennett said that it would be economically unfeasible for his group to decrease the number of lots.
In July, the Edgartown planning board gave Cozy Hearth its unanimous approval in a letter. The Edgartown residential home site committee expressed satisfaction with Cozy Hearth's offer to deed-restrict additional homes to remain in the affordable housing program for 30 years.
Throughout the initial hearing phase, the Cozy Hearth group made major changes in their development plans on the recommendations of MVC commissioners, including shifting from a rectangular lot configuration to a cluster plan. The development plans were revised again in July to protect 67 percent of the open space as a moth habitat under the terms of a state conservation and management permit.
In August, Mr. Bennett supplied written answers to previous questions from the commissioners and MVC staff.
At last week's hearing Ms. Brown asked Mr. Bennett to read his answers aloud. Visibly nervous, Mr. Bennett attempted to read the document, sometimes expanding on his answers but was cut short several times by Ms. Brown who waved her hand and said, "We've already heard that," or "We already know that."
Although the Edgartown Zoning Board approved the profitability and deed restrictions, several of the questions from commissioners and abutting neighbors concerned income levels of Cozy Hearth members, profitability on resale of the three unrestricted lots, and legal issues regarding deed restrictions such as in the case of foreclosures and inheritance.
Marcia Cini, CHCC's attorney, reminded the commissioners that all of the financial issues will be strictly regulated by state and town agencies.
As discussion about financial aspects of the project grew lengthy, Mark London, MVC executive director, reminded the commissioners, "40B is virtually not an issue to the MVC." Instead, he said, they should be weighing the detriments and benefits of greater density in zoning versus those of affordable housing.
"Finances have bogged us down in looking at affordable housing projects," agreed Linda Sibley, MVC chairman. Instead, she suggested, the commissioners should be looking at the project's details, in terms of layout, parking and number of vehicles allowed. In visiting the site, she said, "I was struck by how open the land is. Are you willing to consider landscape mitigation for visual impact?" she asked Mr. Bennett.
Paul Strauss of Oak Bluffs, Dukes County commission appointed MVC member, told Mr. Bennett, "We feel affordable housing projects should be relatively small and scattered through neighborhoods. I have the feeling that this is an almost pristine, large lot area, and not suitable for this type of project. I'm not convinced it's the right project in the right place."
MVC members also raised questions arising from a recent letter from the Edgartown board of health regarding wastewater concerns. Matt Poole, Edgartown Health Agent, wrote a letter to the MVC expressing concern that Cozy Hearth homeowners might not adequately maintain the composting toilets proposed for the eight member lots.
The commissioners compiled a list of questions for Mr. Bennett to address at the next hearing, including how the CHCC would ensure maintenance and proper disposal, how public entities will monitor the homeowners' compliance, and what alternative waste disposal systems might be used instead.
Several abutting property owners raised questions about increased traffic on Oyster Watcha Road and what were described as limited sight distance and design deficiencies at the intersection with Edgartown-West Tisbury Road.
Although the Cozy Hearth group has put $5,000 into escrow to work on traffic solutions when the project is approved, Doug Sederholm, Chilmark MVC commissioner, told Mr. Bennett, "You've got the money, but you don't know if it will make any difference."